Mills v. Alabama helped establish the role of the press in the electoral system. Mills, editor of the Birmingham Post-Herald, published an election-day editorial supporting a proposition changing city government from commission to mayor–council form and criticizing the mayor. The editorial violated an Alabama criminal statute prohibiting soliciting votes for or against candidates or ballot proposals on election day. The trial court determined that a conviction would violate the state and federal constitutions, but the Alabama Supreme Court reversed, finding the statute a reasonable restriction on the press.
The U.S. Supreme Court said that a major purpose of the First Amendment is protecting free discussion of government affairs and that the press serves as a ‘‘powerful antidote’’ to abuse of government power. The act ‘‘muzzle[d] one of the very agencies the Framers . . . thoughtfully and deliberately selected to improve our society and keep it free.’’ This occurred at the time the press could be most effective and denied the opportunity to respond to charges or arguments offered the day before an election. The importance of the role of the press in the political process made the act an ‘‘obvious and flagrant abridgment of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press.’’
The related issue of requiring newspapers to allow candidate response to allegations is addressed in Miami Herald v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241 (1974). The Mills Court also noted that the case did not address conduct at polling places, an issue later addressed in Burson v. Freeman, 504 U.S. 191 (1992).
KEVIN W. SAUNDERS
Cases and Statutes Cited